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As far as Southeast Asian capital cities go, Vientiane is a simple charmer. A city set just over the Mekong River from neighboring Thailand, it’s 250,000 residents make this a relatively sparsely populated capital. The streets are uncrowded, the traffic is minimal, and the downtown section is comprised of merely a few blocks. While it is true that there may not be an incredible amount to “do” or “see” in Vientiane, the laidback small town atmosphere and obvious French influence is enough to keep the casual traveler peacefully entertained for a couple of days.
Strolling through the downtown avenues and past the central fountains it is easy to draw comparisons to small town France. Trendy boutiques and outdoor cafes line the narrow streets, as pedestrians either mill about or saunter by on one speed bicycles. Aside from the Nam Phu fountain in the heart of the downtown district, the most energetic spot in the capital is the Patuxai monument located just a short distance north of town. Resembling a mini-Arc de Triomphe, the towering seven story hunk of concrete was allegedly built with concrete purchased from the US towards building a runway. From the top of the monument the entirety of Vientiane comes into view, as musicians and street vendors line the well manicured park at it base. Aside from the downtown district this is your best bet for some daytime people-watching and and afternoon coffee or drink.
The most culturally significant spot in town is the Pha That Luang temple, an enormous golden spire whose image can be found on everything in Laos from money to beer labels. It’s a few kilometers out of town and reachable on bicycle, but outside of the impressive architecture there really isn’t all that much going on in this section of town. Worthy of snapping a picture at least.
One thing that comes as a surprise to anyone visiting Laos for the first time is the prevalence of the Communist flag flying in conjunction with the national flag of Laos. The Lao flag was adopted in 1975 when the Communists established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic that still exists today. While listed officially as a socialist nation, the seemingly official union of the two flags is interesting in this modern day and age.
Overall, the best bet in Vientiane is simply to chill out for a little while at a coffeeshop or cafe downtown and soak up the mixed European and Lao culture coexisting throughout town. True Coffee and Juma cafe whip up a decent cup and some pretty outrageeous crepes, and any number of restaurants around town serve up Lao and French cuisine for absurdly cheap prices. Vientiane is a great city to chill out in for a couple of days, but I wouldn’t make it the principle stop on any Southeast Asian itinerary.